In a school that places high value on preparing students for lives of engaged citizenship, it comes as no surprise that a comprehensive and thoughtful civics education is a crucial part of the curriculum. In PCD's Middle School, the entire seventh grade history curriculum is devoted to the study of civics.
"Learning about our governance and our history is essential," says Kevin Folan, Head of School. "Teaching civics to middlers is critical because they're at such an impressionable age, and fifteen to twenty years down the road, they are going to be our civic leaders. I want them to feel called to lead and to serve, and I also want them to be equipped with the skills to do so."
In pursuit of these skills, PCD's seventh graders tackle a comprehensive civics education under the guidance of History Teacher Richard Tierney. The goal of his civics course, says Tierney, is for students "to understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens. Obviously the main right and responsibility is to vote, and when you do vote, to do your research so that you are informed before you pull down a certain lever."
For Tierney, an important part of being an informed citizen means understanding the history of voting rights in America. "Everybody assumes that after the American Revolution everybody could vote," says Tierney. "That clearly is not the case."
So Tierney and his students study the evolution of the vote in America, journeying from the American Revolution, to Women's Suffrage, to the Civil Rights Movement. He draws from a wide variety of sources throughout this curriculum, including texts, documentaries, movies, and Supreme Court cases. "We look at Plessy vs. Ferguson, the overturning of Plessy vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, and state court cases such as Tinker vs. Des Moines," explains Tierney.
The variety and validity of these sources, as well as identifying and pointing out biases, are also important aspects of the discussion. A good civics education not only provides information about the history and foundation of the country, says Head of Middle School Jennifer Caletri, but it also teaches skills for sifting through information, thinking critically, and identifying good sources. "You've got to make sure that you're always considering more than one source," she says. "Make sure you're not believing everything you hear and that you're talking it through and you're checking."
In addition to finding multiple sources, it is also important to be respectful when discussing civics, Caletri says. "We want our students to have a knowledge base and we want them to leave here with facts about the constitution and the foundation of the country, but not everyone's going to land on the same page politically, and we have to respect that. We have to listen to each other."
Tierney agrees, saying, "You've got to be respectful of everyone's point of view. No one side holds the truth. You must get different perspectives, because somewhere in the middle is usually where the truth lies."
Demonstrating respect for other perspectives also extends to maintaining political neutrality when teaching civics, a practice advocated by Folan, Tierney, and Caletri.
"We're all agreed we want to stick to what's morally right," says Caletri, "but there's no need to express where we land politically. What we're trying to emphasize to our students is that PCD is a community where all opinions and beliefs are welcome, and the important thing is you have to listen to the other side."
As a former history teacher himself, Folan agrees. "Our job is to teach kids how to think, not what to think. I don't want to change someone's political beliefs. The importance of civics education is how we can meet in the middle, and where we can compromise."